There’s no way around it. Rutgers is rebuilding.
First-year head coach Chris Ash sees progress. He also realizes that the first step can be the hardest.
After a tough 14-7 loss against Iowa the day before, Ash met with his team Sunday and talked again about the four stages of resurrecting a program. It must learn how to compete. That’s followed by learning how to win, then learning how to win championships and, finally, handling success when you win.
“We’re still in Stage I,” Ash told reporters Monday. “I think we are competing. I think we’re a football team that will compete against anybody that we play. We’ll fight and we won’t quit. We have to learn how to win games.”
The Scarlett Knights (2-2 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) face a daunting task in making it to the next stage this coming Saturday. They’re traveling to Ohio State (3-0) for the Buckeyes’ conference opener. The second-ranked team in the country is coming off a bye.
“Ohio State, is playing exceptionally well. It’s going to be a great challenge for us going into a hostile environment like the Horseshoe and playing a football team like Ohio State,” Ash said. “It’s another opportunity for us to continue to improve, keep working each week and go out and compete. Our guys are excited about doing that, and we had a great practice yesterday and I’m sure we’ll have great practices as we have the last few weeks.”
Rutgers squandered opportunities to upset Iowa on Saturday. After tying the game at 7-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Scarlet Knights held the visitors to a three and out on defense, and seized momentum at home.
The Hawkeyes captured it back quickly on a turnover. Safety Brandon Snyder stripped the ball from receiver Andre Patton and then recovered the fumble deep in Rutgers’ territory. Iowa scored the winning touchdown a play later.
“It comes down to details in a lot of areas, but that’s the next stage that we need to be able to conquer and move forward with as we go week-to-week into the season,” Ash said.
The Scarlet Knights are seeking progress without two key members of the squad. Ash confirmed Monday that Janarion Grant, the team’s leading receiver and player-maker on offense, along with defensive end Quanzell Lambert, who was named by the coaches as the outfit’s top D-lineman a year ago, will miss the remainder of the season with injuries they suffered against Iowa. They’re both seniors.
“Just thoughts, prayers, go out to those two players, great human beings, great teammates, have worked extremely hard to be the best that they could be,” Ash said. “You know, in this program, were off to great starts to the season and obviously are going to be sorely missed not only in the field but in the locker room and just around every single day. They come to work with a great attitude and a smile on their face and always a pleasure to be around.”
Overall, Ash was pleased with his defense against the Hawkeyes. It held a team averaging 36 points to 14, which included the final touchdown on a short field following a turnover.
The challenge increases a great deal this week. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in scoring at 56.7 points per game.
“They use a lot of formations, spread the field and isolate their athletes one-on-one in match-ups that they like,” Scarlet Knights Defensive Coordinator Jay Neimann told reports Monday in New Brunswick. “They’re a very good running team, a very complete offense.”
Ash served as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach the last two years. He has a head start preparing for the Buckeyes, or so it would seem.
“I mean, I know the players, but it’s not about me knowing the players. It’s about our players knowing the players and going out and making plays.” he said. “I can know the players all I want, doesn’t matter, our players have to know the players and match-ups and the guys that they are going to go against. They are going to have to go out and execute the call in all three phases. That’s what matters.”
Defensively, Ohio State is allowing just 12.3 points per game, second among Big Ten teams. The Buckeyes also lead the conference in take-aways (11) and turnover margin (+9).
Rutgers offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer worked as a graduate assistant for Ohio State in 2012-13. He spent last season as Houston’s receivers coach and recruiting coordinator under Tom Herman, who was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator from 2012-14.
“I’ve got a lot of respect and a lot of admiration for what they’ve done for a long time,” Mehringer said Monday. “It will be a good defense, but not one that we can’t play with or anything like that. On offense, we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to go up against one of the best teams in the country and one of the best coached teams in the country.”
Ash is downplaying the connections between the Rutgers staff and the Buckeyes. He’s trying to keep everyone focused on the task at hand.
“There’s no secret that I have great relationships with a lot of people there, coaches, players, support staff, just people in the community,” Ash said. “It’s not about me. It’s not about the other people in this program that have been at Ohio State. It’s about us preparing our football team to continue to get better and go play against a great opponent. That’s all I’m worried about.”